Suicide Bombers and the End of MAD
In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the Council on Foreign Relations' Noah Feldman has written an article that looks at the specter of a nuclear Middle East in Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age.
In the lengthy piece, Mr. Feldman offers a succinct passage that strikes at the core of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a psychological deterrent. Simply put, it almost certainly would no longer effectively apply.
What makes suicide bombing especially relevant to the nuclear question is that, by design, it unsettles the theory of deterrence. When the suicide bomber dies in an attack, he means to send the message “You cannot stop me, because I am already willing to die.” To make the challenge to deterrence even more stark, a suicide bomber who blows up a market or a funeral gathering in Iraq or Afghanistan is willing to kill innocent bystanders, including fellow Muslims. According to the prevailing ideology of suicide bombing, these victims are subjected to an involuntary martyrdom that is no less glorious for being unintentional.
So far, the nonstate actors who favor suicide bombing have limited their collateral damage to those standing in the way of their own bombs. But the logic of sacrificing other Muslims against their own wills could be extended to the national level. If an Islamic state or Islamic terrorists used nuclear weapons against Israel, the United States or other Western targets, like London or Madrid, the guaranteed retaliation would cost the lives of thousands and maybe millions of Muslims. But following the logic of suicide bombing, the original bomber might reason that those Muslims would die in God’s grace and that others would live on to fight the jihad. No state in the Muslim world has openly embraced such a view. But after 9/11, we can no longer treat the possibility as fanciful.